Alan Duff: Culture brought alive by music

"French singing is so backward to our ears it sounds like talent quest output from the 60s". Photo Gettyimages
"French singing is so backward to our ears it sounds like talent quest output from the 60s". Photo Gettyimages

I went with my wife and daughter (visiting France from Canada) to a Basque choir rehearsal, a private invitation thanks to the half-Basque son of a former rugby playing ex-pat Kiwi. He knows how much my wife and I love Basque singing; as well he knew a man from my home town of Rotorua would be there.

The singing was superb, near as good, I imagine, as any Russian choral group; the harmonies rich and layered, the emotion typically Basque. The Maori guy beside me said "it's better than our own singing".

I agreed. Way better.

Maori have had a thousand years perfecting the haka. These people have developed their music over several thousand years, the oldest culture in Europe. And we live in the middle of it. Lucky us. As readers know, I love music, and quite a range.

As a kid in Whaka I loved listening to the traditional half-tone chants issuing from the meeting house, which my mates found monotonous.

I like Gregorian chants, the haunting intoning of African-American prisoners on chain gangs in the southern US from early last century. And as has been said a few times now, I first heard gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as an 11-year-old and haven't stopped listening to her since.

What the Basque have is indomitable pride: in their ethnic uniqueness, their way of life, outlook, the culture that evolved quite differently to France and Spain which the Basque territory encompasses. French singing is so backward to our ears it sounds like talent quest output from the 60s. Predictable, derivative and as often as not grating sequences of flat notes.

Spanish singing, on the other hand, at least in the southern part, is wonderful: urgent, stirring, sensual, influenced by their Arabic neighbours across the Mediterranean, and gypsy music. The guitar influence is another major factor.

Basque fishermen dominated whaling in the 16th and 17th centuries. Before that, from the 1500s they caught cod off Newfoundland's fecund grounds and kept it a secret for perhaps 200 years. Discovering the salting process meant a vast market opened up all over Europe, and many became rich. They sailed in flimsy craft across the Atlantic and of course back again with filled holds.

I can't bear to miss the All Blacks haka, no matter they perform it 15 times a year. Photo / Brett Phibbs
I can't bear to miss the All Blacks haka, no matter they perform it 15 times a year. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sitting in this small rehearsal room I thought "where else will I find a musical culture so fulfilling as this?" No, I'm not intending to swap hats and apply for French citizenship. But the feeling ran deep. It occurred that I've unconsciously sought out a place to belong for years and years, without all the attached social obligations, or feeling I'm participating without examination or critical analysis. (Writers are a bit selfish you know. We want to have our cake, eat it, then quietly slip off. Though I'm more than happy to pay for the cake.) My fellow Maori is from Ohinemutu, a pa that overlooks Lake Rotorua. He's handsome, confident, personable. We talked about our home town, the pa rivalries that manifested in rugby wars, but that we were mates afterwards. Ngati whakaue gifted my Tuhourangi tribe the land they resettled on at Whakarewarewa after the Mt Tarawera eruption. We'll always be indebted to them. We are all Te Arawa and that closeness came to life again in faraway Biarritz, France.

And yet ...

Yet I can never be fully a part of any tribal affiliation, or not in the normal sense. Too much water has flowed under too many different bridges. They know it and I achingly feel it. It's not like a divorce because there was never a rift, a rupture in the first place. Just a drifting.

Next you look, and the shore's disappeared. Two other part-Maori guys came along and, with the Rotorua guest, did a haka for the singers. It went down a treat. I'm too old and anyway feel somewhat the hypocrite with my ambiguous feelings about the haka, overdone and almost cliched that it's become. But boy, did I feel a surge of pride in "our" boys performing.

Just as I can't bear to miss the All Blacks haka, no matter they perform it now 15 times a year.

That doesn't matter -- we don't tire of it. It's part of our culture; the reason tourists visit Rotorua more than just about any other place.

Even when I'm urging changes and a lift in standards in Maori culture, there is yet that blind pride that sweeps you away before reason and measuring can get in. When our rugby team here won the final two weeks ago to go back to the Top 14 division, the town went crazy and underlying celebrations were Basque songs.

One day -- and soon, I hope -- Maoridom will lead us into a new era of singing that the nation will happily join. Come on you composers, your country needs you.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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